Gene genius

A British research team from the University of Cambridge has recently embarked upon the first-ever rigorous search for a ‘maths’ gene.

A British research team from the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridgehas recently embarked upon the first-ever rigorous search for a maths gene. The scientists intend to search the DNA of 200 pairs of siblings for clues as to what makes a good mathematician.

Mathematical ability is commonly thought of as an innate gift that some people are born with. Moreover, this gift, which often runs in the family, is coupled in many cases with other peculiar characteristics such as musical ability, spatial awareness and a lack of social skills. People with autism are not only challenged in terms of social skills, but can also show extremely high mathematical ability.

The question remains as to whether this connection is due to genetics or due to nurture rather than nature. Mathematically minded families are more likely to foster the attraction of their children to this field by playing maths puzzles and games. Also, being a solitary business, maths is more likely to attract introverted individuals when they are still young.

Trying to establish whether such a genetic link does exist, the Cambridge team of scientists, lead by Professor Baron-Cohen, intends to consider the genes of pairs of siblings who have both obtained an A grade at maths A level – the exams taken in the UK at the age of 18. Candidates will be asked to perform an online maths test and to send in a cheek swab by post.

On average, siblings share 50 per cent of their genes. If the scientists find along the way a significantly higher number of genes that are shared, those genes would be candidates for being responsible for the common maths ability of the siblings. These candidate genes could then be subjected to further tests in order to see whether they really are connected to mathematical ability, or autism, or both.

Understanding mathematical ability, and its origins, can help improve maths education and support those unable to get to grips with basic maths – a huge handicap for some people. Early identification of those that are likely to struggle, would allow provisions to be made so that they do not get left behind at school. Besides, knowledge of a maths gene, if it exists, may provide insights into how mathematically gifted people see the world, and may help scientist to pierce the mysteries of autism.

The project team is asking for volunteers. They are particularly interested in brothers and sisters who both have an A grade in A Level maths.

For further information, please visit the maths gene project website: